I’m sure most of you are well-acquainted with Cindy, the mother of the ever-delightful of triplets Bereket, Sira, and Tsega. If you haven’t joined the fan club, run to her blog, ethiopia tripletland and join in the fun. Our very favorite videos of other people’s tots are always on Cindy’s blog. Astrid Meklit is besotted with the three of them.
When I began to ask various bloggers to guest post, Cindy was at the top of the list. A mama to three, three-year olds? She’s got ‘BiG’ covered. Although I told Cindy she was welcome to post on any subject she liked, I firmly cajoled her to talk about the differences between her two trips to Ethiopia. I’m so glad I’m bossy, assertive, because here is the glorious result:
I start the flight to Ethiopia drunk. My husband Jerry and I are beyond giddy which seemed to climax at a DC lounge. We were about 15 hours from Ethiopia and two weeks from completing the adoption of 5 month old triplet boys. By Rome, during our touchdown for jet fuel, I was swooning. My head hurt, I wanted to throw up, and I started making trips up and down the aisle every 15 minutes with a bad case of stomach nerves. But worse, I was suffering the start of a 2-day panic attack.
I return to Ethiopia as tourist only. I am traveling with my mother. I free my children from my mind but open my nervous system for details. This time I will experience more religion and history and cover more distance; first east to Harar, then north to Lalibela. My role in our mother-daughter duo is leader. I adjust expectations, make sure we don’t get lost, get what we need, know what’s happening, and write everything down. I know how to navigate our travels and do not get sick on the plane.
We are landing in Africa. I know well the sensations of Sub-Saharan African culture shock and waited for this short-lived stage to take over. Babies, however, this was a new shocker. Anxiety and claustrophobia hit hard. Despite all the desperation of infertility, miscarriages, disappointment, red tape, and long stretches of waiting time, I was suddenly in no hurry to meet our new sons. I feel relief that our first week in Ethiopia will be spent traveling away from the care center that fosters our babies.
Our first day in Addis Ababa, I am itching all morning to get out of the hotel. I almost run up the street to shake this suffocating feeling. Finally out driving, we are crossing the city on Bole Boulevard waiting in traffic. Like out of nowhere, this guy is waving an 8-digited hand at my car window. I flinched hard and might have screamed. I remember feeling icy inside. Like a ghostly line up, he was followed by a showcase of the disfigured, handicapped, and impoverished: blind, crippled, twisted bodies that rolled on skateboards, backs encased in tumors, all cupping their fists out for duh, money. I’ve seen this before, buy my body reacts strongly. I feel like crying.
I am in Addis again and feel good. I recognize hotel workers and drivers. The capital looks different through my new eyes. Richer. Sexier. Exciting. Busy with commerce. There is still extreme poverty and pollution, but destitution is not all I see. I think how stupid it was that my first impression failed to notice the number of well-to-dos on their way to work, running neat shops, dining out. I begin to recognize many of the street beggars as we pass them everyday, but this trip I notice fewer. I catch them laughing, talking, playing jokes. I pass birr notes outside car windows to them and feel guilty for doing so stupidly little. Human beings, somebody once said, can adapt to anything.
Driving through the southern highlands to the Bale Mountains, there are no unpopulated spaces. Kids crowd us each time we leave the car. They ask for pins. Mothers stare. Teenagers sell us goods. It’s fascinating, we banter, exchange humor, pleasantries, yet I’m tired from losing my personal space and solitude. I can’t find a bush to pee behind unless I run fast from the car and yell at children to go away. I’m laughing when I do this. The landscape is at times beautiful, green, and lush, and we pass many fields of teff ready for harvest. We study the agriculture, wildlife, landscape. We learn cultural, political, historical details. We camp in the cold and foggy Bale Mountains and it reminds me of the Pacific Northwest. We ride horses and see baboons, wart hogs, nyala, and mark up our bird book. The wart hogs are oddly docile here. We meet gracious exciting people. I have exited culture shock. My eyes are different. Now I am up for anything, including motherhood.
The remainder of our trip we hole up with our new family in the company of other newly formed families. We are by now acclimated and patient as we grow more tired with less sleep and more illness. We walk slow and heavy with our new children, like in a sea of molasses, and forget to hurry. I wish the honeymoon would not end and I don’t want to go home.
We are driving east to Awash National Park and onto the Muslim city of Harar near Somalia. Fields of teff are maturing but still green. The land becomes dry, volcanic, hot, and strangely unpopulated. This is Afar country. I can pee anywhere and nobody sees me, there are no crowds, the culture is more reserved. I like this solitude. We see monkeys, warthog, oryx, and caravans of camels. Here I scare wart hogs from the bush. Our guide names every bird for me. The look from Afar people cuts me like the knives they sling. Young men wear their hair long. They are proud, decorated, and beautiful.
A few days later we leave the wild solitude of Afar and travel the eastern extension of the Ethiopian highlands to Harar. The land becomes cooler, fertile, with more relief than Awash. The slopes are dotted with chat bushes. This is chat central: growing, selling, exporting, consuming. Some have lost teeth to it. I find the taste bitter and its effect mild, but I do not chew much. The atmosphere is lively as we enter the walled city of Harar. Oromo and Harari women dress in beautiful bright cloth for market days. Inside the walls, history and religion, painted concrete, vibrant colors, mosques, alley mazes, and cobblestone mix strangely with modern eateries, loud pop music, traffic congestion, overpopulation, chat consumption, and a hint of lunacy. We spend our nights closed up in a traditional Harari house. I feel strange and melancholy like the midnight cry of the hyena outside our window. Why did I come all this way to a weird place?
Harar reproduces a painting in my head: Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. The painting depicts a shadow of a girl twirling a wheel down a lonesome street. You feel the shadow of something around the corner and it might be nothing or it might be menacing. By the time we leave Harar, the day after watching the nightly hyena feedings, a sense of color and vibrancy dominates my memory. I decide there is nothing menacing around the corner and now I realize of all my Ethiopian travels, Harar perhaps had the biggest impact (so far).
Mom and I finish our duo in Lalibela, the only city we experience in the northern historical route. The details of the mind blowing craftsmanship of the rock-hewn churches are too much for one camera and one memory. I am barefoot and leading my mom arm and arm on rocky, uneven floors through churches that challenge her bad ankles. We move slow. On the hike to Yemrehenna Kristos cave church, we hand out birr notes to a line of almost entirely blind beggars. Our guide encourages this, points to the needy ones I have missed, but we both agree that handing out money and things to children who ask out of habit rather than need corrupts culture. I made this mistake in 2006. The line between right and wrong waves in and out and I still feel stupidly impotent.
Today I wonder when our next trip to Ethiopia will be, when we will take our children, how we will find the money. I hope we are there soon and I find myself wandering the Omo River Valley.
Thank you so much Cindy, for sharing your voice (and your terrific triplets) with us.